Why You Should Ignore Word Count (At First)

One of the most common mistakes I see in my student’s essays is fixating too much on word count. What often happens is students start writing, get to the 650 maximum word count, and just stop abruptly (maybe hastily adding a cheesy summary closing line) — even if the story is still unfinished.

Or I get the opposite approach with an essay that’s much shorter than the word count, which is also a mistake because every word is a chance to stand out and show admissions officers who you are and why they should add you to their campus community.

Here’s what most students don’t realize about the writing process: it takes an average of four revisions to get to the perfect final draft (and some students go through seven!). So that means you might end up writing 2,000 words of rough drafts to get to a perfect final draft of 650 words. 

Even professional writers don’t get it right on the first try. And most of the time, half the written work is left on the cutting room floor before publication.

What does that mean for you? Keep writing, no matter how long it gets. And with every draft, keep adding new and better details for every example, keep writing to draw out the storytelling of each anecdote, keep journaling to uncover deeper levels of self-reflection.

Only at the very end (let’s say around draft three or four) do I recommend you start even checking the word count. Then, follow my steps for proofreading to find what to cut. 

The 8 Grammar Mistakes to Watch Out For

The 8 Grammar Mistakes to Watch Out For

These are all a great thing to look out for when you're proofreading your essay. I’ve had so many students make the dangling modifier mistake, in addition to the faulty quotation mark punctuation. But you should find comfort that even published authors make the same mistakes! Everyone needs help with their grammar sometimes, especially since it often takes a new pair of eyes to spot typos, because yours have already gotten habituated to your words.

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Your Summer Admissions Essay Checklist

Your Summer Admissions Essay Checklist

1) Start a Journal
The hardest thing about a personal essay is finding your voice—most high schools focus on the academic essay, which is more stiff and formulaic than the admissions essay. An easy way to discover what you sound like when you're not citing academic sources or analyzing text is to start a journal. Every night before bed, take a few minutes to write about your day or what's worrying you or even try some of the prompts in the Common App. The relaxing background should let you tap into your personal voice without the pressure of sounding academic. At the very least, you'll have some snippets saved away for the draft writing stage.

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4 Admissions Essays That Worked—And Why

4 Admissions Essays That Worked—And Why

TOPIC 1: Redefining The Idea of Masculinity While Growing Up With Two Moms
SUCCESS RATE:
Accepted to all 10 schools he applied to, including Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Yale University, Princeton University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 
WHY IT WORKED: Colleges want to see exceptional students who overcome adversity because it shows strength and students are not afraid to challenge societal norms, because that takes risk. This essay manages to convey both at once.

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Your Last-Minute Admissions Essay Checklist

Your Last-Minute Admissions Essay Checklist

Overusing adverbs (basically, essentially, actually) means that your verbs are not strong enough on their own. Wordy phrases and fragments slow down your narrative. Pedantic words like “myriad” and “plethora” should only be used if you know what they mean - otherwise you come across as someone disingenuous who used athesaurus to sound smarter (something admissions officers can easily see through.)

Inspired by Karyn, here are a few more things I would add to your admissions essay checklist for before you submit:

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Your Admissions Essay Winter Break Reading List

Calling all juniors (and precocious sophomores)! Now that you’re done with class and homework and finals and extracurriculars, this weeklong break is your perfect opportunity to prep for your admissions essay. The personal statement is incredibly difficult to master, especially since most schools don’t emphasize creative writing in their curriculums. The best way for you to learn a brand new way of writing is to read the best examples of that writing. Consider the below your personal essay master class.

 1) Bossypants by Tina Fey

If memoirs aren’t really your thing, try a humor memoir. This New York Times bestseller by the former Saturday Night Live head writer is one of my all time faves! Other hilarious humor essayists to check out are Nora Ephron, David Sedaris, Amy Poehler, Mindy Kaling, Jess Klein, and more. If your friends would describe you as funny, you should try a draft that takes a humorous approach. Even one self-deprecating line can do a lot in making you seem more approachable and likable, which is personal essay gold.

2) The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

After discovering your inner humorist, you should take a look at the classic memoir genre. One of the most important aspects of a personal essay is the self-reflection and that’s what a memoir is all about. If you’re not sure what you like, go to your local bookstore and check out the memoir section and browse until you find something interesting. The New York Times bestseller list is a great place to discover those too. 

3) Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott

This is both a beautiful memoir and a great intro to writing that professional writers swear by. This book is a go-to for when you’re stuck with writer’s block. It is one of the most quotable and memorable books for a reason! 

4) On Writing The College Application Essay by Harry Bauld 

My English teacher introduced this gem to me in high school and it was a game changer. Written by a former admissions officer and English teacher, this book is what gave me the writing mantra I still swear by today. Full of great example essays, the book also breaks down the all the elements of a standout essay. I swear by this! If you do one thing, get this book.

4 Easy Hacks to Answering the "Why This College” Essay

When writing your college supplements, you will almost certainly come across the “Why this college?” essay in many forms. For example, Stanford asks you to “Name one thing you are looking forward to experiencing at Stanford” in 50 words, while Columbia asks “Please tell us what you value most about Columbia and why” in 300 words.

Colleges ask this questions for two reasons. First, to find out your demonstrated interest, because the more students that enroll after being accepted, the better the college looks. Second, it’s an easy way to weed out unserious candidates. The biggest mistake you can make is copying and pasting the same essay for each college. If you think it’s as easy as substituting College Name 1 with College Name 2, you’re doing it wrong.

The “Why this college?” supplement is one of the hardest essays to answer. Ideally, you would’ve visited the campus, researched the school, and spoken to former alums to really know the answer. But not everyone has the privilege (or money) to travel to see schools, Luckily, I have some shortcuts for you, right this way.

1) The Campus Visit

The college tour is the golden standard to reference in these supplements. It shows the most demonstrated interest (link) and also gives you the best reference if this college is the right fit for you. It might even help you narrow your list - sometimes stepping foot on campus right out of the car is all you need to know to feel nope, not for me. When you’re there, be sure to take notes on everything you see and hear and get business cards too just in case. These notes will be crucial in helping you come up with a more unique answer than just something you’d find on the website. (For more tips on nailing the campus visit, click here.)

2) Speak to Former Alums

Getting the perspective of current or former alums is worth more than any brochure. Maybe you’re too embarrassed to ask your real questions at the campus visit or you think the answer wasn’t real enough. An alum not connected to the admissions team has no reason to lie to you. Ask your counselor to connect you with anyone who went there recently. If that doesn’t work, reach out to your network. Facebook and LinkedIn make this super easy. Or search to see if any reps will be coming to a campus fair near you. 

3) Research The School

Find out the majors, extracurriculars, professors, etc that would excite you about the school and reference them by name, so you’re not just spouting off generic stats. Saying you have the greatest professors is not as meaningful as saying you can’t wait to study Russian literature with Professor Stanton, for example.

4) Stalk The College’s Social Media 

This is key. Remember that each campus has a brand and you need to figure out a way that you fit into that brand. The college’s social media presence is a great way to discover how the college speaks about itself, what it prides about itself to boast on Facebook, and most importantly, the insider slang it uses to refer to itself or its students. Cornell students are Cornellians. Columbia is known for its Core.  University of Michigan students are proud Wolverines. You get the idea!

The One Thing Most Students Forget Before Submitting Their Admissions Essay

The One Thing Most Students Forget Before Submitting Their Admissions Essay

You spent months perfecting your essay, going through multiple revisions and edits. You've cut the cliches and got it down to word count. You've finessed the opening and closing lines to eye-catching perfection. Everyone from your counselor to your mom's cousin twice removed has proofread it and given it their seal of approval. Maybe you've even hired a guru or two to give it the professional once (or twice) over.

Now all you have to do is click submit, right? And then you'll breathe the sweet victory of completion.

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What High School Doesn't Teach You About The Admissions Essay

What High School Doesn't Teach You About The Admissions Essay

Most high schools focus on teaching you the academic essay: you know, thesis statement, supporting paragraphs, and a closing paragraph summarizing the above. There is a pretty exact formula you have to stick with and not much room for creativity. Your tone is overly formal and you are expected to cite and analyze texts for a unique argument and conclusion. The good news: You spend 4 years learning this academic skill, which is helpful and will be what you are expected to write in college. 

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The Secret Trick to Channeling Your Creativity

You're staring at your computer screen, the mouse blinking back at you expectantly.

You've already tried writing an email draft to a friend, using your iPhone notes app, and remembering the Write Now Revise Later mantra. You know your deadline is coming up, but you feel totally stuck. Your brain is on vacay. Your inner narrator is off duty. You can't think of anything to write. Welcome to writer's block.

Here's an easy trick: switch up when and where you write.

All of us have our own internal clocks and creativity can come when we least expect it. Some of my best writing has occurred in the twilight hours between 3 and 4 in the morning. You may find yourself suddenly inspired at 6am in bed with your journal or at noon in the park on your iPad.

For now, turn your computer off, go for a walk, get distracted, and then try again at a different time and place.

Let me know if it worked!

How to Overcome The Hardest Essay Roadblocks

How to Overcome The Hardest Essay Roadblocks

1) Ignoring the Supplemental Essay Questions

A common mistake is providing the same generic answer to the supplemental "Why do you want to go to this school?" question. Admissions officers have told me that if you can copy and paste your answer to every school, you're doing it wrong. The answer has to be personalized to each school: mention specific professors or majors unique to the school or something you discovered on your campus tour. Experts in Forbes second that opinion.

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Answers to Your Most Pressing Essay Questions

Answers to Your Most Pressing Essay Questions

I know you're supposed to “show don't tell.” How do I do that, exactly?
The best way to show is to use anecdotes, specific examples, and lots of detail. Telling is saying, “I am curious.” Showing is describing an anecdote where you got in trouble with your parents because you snuck into the cabinet and ate coffee beans just because you were curious. Picture your essay as a screenplay and that will help.

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